“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:11-17).
I have to admit that it’s curious why spiritual gifts seem less prevalent today, especially given the much higher number of Christians today than in the first century. Here are a few ideas:
- Constantinianism. With Constantine and Licinius’s publication of the Edict of Milan in 313AD, the number of Christians in the Roman Empire exploded. Sociologist Rodney Stark estimates that from 300AD to 350AD, the number of Christians grew from 6,299,832 to 33,882,008 (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p. 7). The end of persecution was obviously a factor, and this is when the Church developed the doctrine of “the invisibility of the true Church,” which discriminated the truly elect from the conformists. When being a Christian became easy, wheats and tares were sown together (Matthew 13:24-30). So, even though the number of Christians may seem inflated today, the number of the elect may be quite a bit smaller.
- Nature of miracles. Miracles, by definition, are supernatural. It would be a miracle if I jumped off a building and then proceeded to float in the air instead of falling flat on the ground, because falling is natural. Natural laws are simply descriptions of what usually happens, and thus supernatural phenomena, by definition, cannot occur too often. This is the same explanation that Augustine adduced to account for the relative sparsity of miracles in his day, “lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should grow cold by becoming accustomed to things which when they were novelties kindled its faith” (Of True Religion, xxv.47).
- Skepticism. Miracles may be happening around us, but we simply don’t believe them. As Jesus said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Even some of Jesus’s disciples doubted him after the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). For moderns, our doubt is augmented by naturalism. The modern scientific mind assumes natural causes for every phenomenon because scientific methodology can only address natural causes. But this doesn’t mean that only natural causes exist. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga writes, that would be like “the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys under the streetlight, on the grounds that the light was better there. (In fact it would go the drunk one better: it would be to insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.)” (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 406). Miracles often require faith (Mark 6:1-6; James 5:15). Jesus taught that “if you have faith and do not doubt … you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (Matthew 21:21). This is figurative speech of course, but the message is clear: we don’t see miracles because we don’t believe.
Also, the fact that you don’t see miracles in your part of the world doesn’t mean that they aren’t happening elsewhere. In countries that I have visited for missions work (e.g. Burma, Thailand), miracles are still one of the primary reasons why people consider the Christian faith. I have many friends at seminary hailing from places like Nigeria, DRC, and China who share about numerous occurrences of compelling miracles. I challenge you to try foreign missions work and see for yourself!
This is Part 2 of 4 posts in my series on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Go to Part 1: Why the Gifts of the Holy Spirit Are for Today or to Part 3: Why We Need to Be Baptized in the Holy Spirit.